Country rock stalwarts the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (NGDB) have released a DVD/CD package celebrating their 50th anniversary. Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years Live, on the Warner Music Nashville label, was recorded live at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee and was originally aired on PBS (Public Broadcasting Station).
To help the four remaining original members of the band (Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter, and John McEuen) mark the occasion, they were joined by a variety of old friends and former band members. The friend side of the ledger included John Prine, Alison Krauss, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Vince Gill, while the former band mates included Jackson Browne and Jimmy Ibbotson.
Formed in 1966, NGDB were one of the groups, The Birds being the most famous, who were influenced by country music. However, unlike some of the others, they were also initially known as pop musicians who covered country songs. That of course changed when they went into a recording studio in Nashville with country music legends Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, and Maybelle Carter to record their triple album of classic country songs, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
While they went back and recorded more albums mixing pop and country, they also became recognized as one of the few bands who could easily fit in both the traditional country and pop music camps. While they might be considered one of the first crossover bands, in actual fact they are almost two separate groups, a country and a pop band.
Both bands are on display during the concert as they open with a lovely and clean country/pop cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”. Right after that they introduce their first guest, Mr. Prine. Unfortunately Prine’s battles with throat cancer have finally taken their toll and his voice just isn’t as strong as it used to be. While he was able to get through “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” with little trouble, his voice started to give out on his bluegrass standard, “Paradise”.
The band’s country personality comes out in full force when they are joined on stage by Gill for “Tennessee Stud” and Krauss for “Keep on the Sunny Side”. Both were songs they had recorded on Will the Circle Be Unbroken and here, like on the album, they play them as straight country tunes.
There aren’t many bands who can make that switch with the conviction and sincerity of the NGDB. Most of them will retain some vestiges of popular music when they perform even the most traditional country songs. Not these guys. When they switch to playing country, they are completely committed to the genre. When they play “Keep on the Sunny Side”, they sound like they could be backing up Carter again.
While Browne had only been a member of the band briefly, for two months back in 1966 when he was 16, it’s a sign of the consideration he has for them that he joined them on stage for this event. Like all of us, he’s aged physically, but his voice is still as clear and strong as it ever was and he was obviously having fun.
The NGDB are always going to be better known for their interpretations of other people’s music than anything they’ve ever written. However, they not only have done some wonderful performances of material by everyone from Hank Williams to Kenny Loggins, they also genuinely enjoy what they’re doing. Their pleasure in what they are doing is so infectious that you can’t help but be swept up in it and have a good time watching them.
If you’re a fan of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years Live will bring you lots of pleasure. The package I was sent only contained the DVD, but the CD is all the same tracks you’ll find in the concert film. As an added note, both the sound and the visuals on DVD are wonderful, making it a pleasure to watch.